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“Maryland Bill” — Podcast Episode #2

by Peter Wagner, May 27, 2010

Play

Host: Peter Wagner, Executive Director, Prison Policy Initiative

Guest: Cindy Boersma, Legislative Director of the ACLU of Maryland
May, 2010

Transcript:

Peter Wagner:

Welcome to issues in prison-based gerrymandering, a podcast about keeping the Census Bureau’s prison count from harming our democracy. The Census Bureau counts people in prison as if they were actual residents of their prison cells, even though most state laws say that people in prison are residents of their homes. When prison counts are used to pad legislative districts, the weight of a vote starts to differ. If you live next to a large prison, your vote is worth more than one cast in a district without prisons. Prison-based gerrymandering distorts state legislative districts and has been known to create county legislative districts that contain more prisoners than voters. On each episode, we’ll talk with different voting rights experts about ways in which state and local governments can change the census and avoid prison-based gerrymandering.

Our guest today is Cindy Boersma, Legislative Director of the ACLU of Maryland. Last month, Maryland made history by being the first state to pass a law requiring the state to adjust the U.S. Census and count incarcerated people at home for state and local redistricting purposes. The ACLU of Maryland played a key role in that effort, and Cindy is here to talk with us about how it all came together.

Welcome, Cindy.

Cindy Boersma:

Thank you, Peter. It’s great to be with you.

Peter Wagner:

Thanks for joining us. I was hoping you could introduce yourself and tell us about what you do at the ACLU and why the ACLU was interested in addressing prison-based gerrymandering.

Cindy Boersma:
Some of the people who came out to testify and show their support for ending prison-based gerrymandering at a March 4, 2010 hearing at the Maryland House of Delegates. Cindy Boersma is in the center in the green suit.

Some of the people who came out to testify and show their support for ending prison-based gerrymandering at a March 4, 2010 hearing at the Maryland House of Delegates. Cindy Boersma is in the center in the green suit.

I’m the Legislative Director for the ACLU of Maryland. I work primarily on state, our state legislative agenda. We do some work with our Washington legislative office on federal issues. But my primary work is in Annapolis on state legislative issues of concern to the ACLU of Maryland. We became involved in this issue because of our historic involvement in voting rights issues throughout Maryland with some significant history on the Eastern Shore of Maryland.

The Eastern Shore has a legacy dating back, of course, to slavery with a significant black population and starkly white government at both the state and local level. In many areas, on the Eastern Shore and in other parts of Maryland, there has been no African American who has ever held elected office or even held a professional position in state or local government. That led to Voting Rights Act litigation by the ACLU in partnership with the NAACP back in the ’80s around the state and also on the Eastern Shore.

In response to that litigation, the court created a majority-minority district in one county’s local election districts in Somerset County and yet the problem of no African Americans holding elected offices or even hired positions–professional positions–in local government persisted.

We, again with the NAACP, documented the persistence of that problem in a report that we issued last summer. One of the sources of the problem, not the only source, but one significant contribution to the problem was that sitting in the middle of this majority-minority district was one of the state’s large prisons, so that 64% of what was the majority-minority in that district were prisoners at the Eastern Correctional Institution. So we had really a majority-minority district in name only.

Peter Wagner:

So the ACLU has been working on issues of electoral and racial justice in Maryland for a very long time, and prison-based gerrymandering was one of, became one of those aspects of a problem that you discovered while doing that work.

Cindy Boersma:

That’s correct.

Peter Wagner:

So when did the legislature get involved?

Cindy Boersma:

We involved the Legislative Black Caucus as soon as the report was issued. The Legislative Black Caucus at the time, of course, had been, has been very invested in the census and making sure that everyone is properly counted in this next census that is already underway. When we brought this issue to their attention, they became very invested in correcting this problem. They worked with the Office of the Attorney General and got an opinion from the Office of the Attorney General that correcting prison-based gerrymandering, especially as it affected Somerset County on the Eastern Shore, was not only consistent with the Voting Rights Act, but it mandated it, at least in spirit, in order to fulfill the principles and goals of the Voting Rights Act in Maryland.

The next step was to work with our legislative staff that’s in charge of redistricting and explaining the issue to them. They also worked with the House and Senate leaders — the Speaker of the House and the President of the Senate–to bring them on board. So they really took this cause on, even before the legislative session started, and had laid the groundwork for the introduction of legislation to correct the problem.

Peter Wagner:

So you’re saying this happened all in the same legislative session?

Cindy Boersma:

It did, yes. We brought the issue to the leader of the Legislative Black Caucus in the early fall. We worked with the Caucus leaders who took on the bill as the bill sponsors to draft the No Representation Without Population Act. They worked with the Office of the Attorney General to get an Attorney General’s opinion that said not only was this consistent with the Voting Rights Act, but important to fulfilling the goals and the spirit of the Voting Rights Act, particularly as prison-based gerrymandering affected Somerset County and the Voting Right Act history of litigation there. They also worked and we worked with the legislative staff in charge of redistricting to explain the issue of prison-based gerrymandering to them, and they came on board very quickly to work on what it would take to actually implement the bill and make sure the bill was drafted in the most cost-effective, logistically simple way. The Caucus and the ACLU of Maryland also worked with House and Senate leadership and brought them on board. So all the ducks were lined up by the beginning of the legislative session, and that helped ensure fairly smooth sailing for the bill once the session started.

Peter Wagner:

Some of the questions that I get asked a lot about Maryland, I think you’re actually better suited to answer than I am. And that first one is, outside of Somerset County, which was a bit unique, how dramatic was the problem of prison-based gerrymandering in Maryland?

Cindy Boersma:

My understanding is that Maryland had two of the most skewed districts, skewed by prison-based gerrymandering districts in the country. Somerset County we’ve already talked about, where 64% of the majority-minority population was prisoners. We also have several large state prisons out in western Maryland, and we had one legislative sub-district there where 18% of the population was prisoners, and so that enhanced the voting power of the voters in that district at the expense of any district in Maryland without prisons. Maryland, like the rest of the country, locates its prisons in sparsely populated rural areas, and that means that voters in those areas have their votes unfairly enhanced while voters in any other area without a prison have their votes unfairly diluted by that artificial increase in population that’s due to locating large prisons, and concentrating those prison populations in rural areas.

Peter Wagner:

Could you talk a little bit more about why this bill passed or how it passed, or, it’s really the same question, about what other states could learn from what you did in Maryland to help see this bill through that they perhaps should be using in their own work on this issue in other states.

Cindy Boersma:

It was the Somerset issue and the legacy of Voting Rights Act litigation and the impact of prison-based gerrymandering on solutions to those problems, of course, made a big difference. Not every state has that same sort of unique impact from prison-based gerrymandering. But what was also important was to keep the conversation from drifting into “this is somehow a way for the urban areas like Baltimore City to either make some sort of power-grab or some sort of money-grab.”

It was very important in the educating that we did before the bill was even introduced and before session even started, to explain the difference between correcting the population count for the purposes of drawing district lines and using census numbers fro the purposes of distributing either federal aid to the state and throughout the state and local state aid. So very important to let people know that [The law ending prison-based gerrymandering] is going to have no impact on funding either from the federal government or the way the state distributes funding to local governments.

Peter Wagner:

In my understanding, the bill passed with some pretty wide margins.

Cindy Boersma:

The bill passed with extremely wide margins. In fact, it was just a handful of legislators in opposition. It’s really important to know that legislators from the affected districts almost unanimously, and certainly in the majority, supported the bill. The Senators from–all of the legislators from Somerset County and the Eastern Shore area supported the bill, and the Senators from the western Maryland districts supported the bill. The only real outspoken opposition came from one delegate in the western Maryland district that was going to be affected with the 18% prison population, and his opposition repeated many erroneous arguments based on concerns about funding would be affected. It’s important for advocates and legislators in states that are dealing with this issue to assure themselves that funding will not be affected, and it won’t be.

Peter Wagner:

You’ve done a pretty amazing thing there in Maryland, and I have to congratulate you and I thank you for sharing your experiences with the other people listening to this podcast. Is there anything that we’ve missed?

Cindy Boersma:

I don’t think so.

Peter Wagner:

Thank you for joining us, Cindy.

Cindy Boersma:

Thank you, Peter. It’s a pleasure.

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